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photosynthesis

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i.

 

She shivers as another strong gust of wind pushes against her body. It was a mistake to come out wearing only a flimsy cardigan that did no good. It’s not even snowing yet, but it sure feels like it.

Lee Eun Bi plays with her phone for a while, wondering what’s happening back in Seoul, back in her sister’s school, in their home, in his home. The contact name glares at her from her screen: Gong Tae Kwang.

“Should I?” She says to no one in particular, and almost in response a tiny breeze tickles her cheek, “I should, right?” Another breeze. Maybe the wind really is talking to her, or maybe she’s just looking for an excuse to call him.

She clears her throat, “Hi, how are you? What’s the weather like over there? How’s school?” and shakes her head quickly, “No, this won’t work. Just act like normal, Lee Eun Bi.”

But what was normal anyway?

Was it bickering with him over the phone? Telling jokes that make no sense? She wasn’t sure what it was, what they used to be like before – back when she was Go Eun Byul to the rest of the world, and only he knew her real name.

Will he be asleep? Maybe he’s with a friend? … A girlfriend? She thinks, then unthinks that thought because his love life is none of her business.

 


 

(Only, it is, because she’s the one he wants, no one else.)

 


 

Are you awake? She texts him.

Hi to you too. Comes the reply a minute later, and she smiles. She fingers the keys for a minute, thinking of what to write next. How are you?

I’m good.

 

It’s too typical, too formal, and she can’t help a tired sigh. What was normal for them?

A loud noise comes and she nearly drops her phone. He’s calling her. And even though it shouldn’t, the sight of his name flashing on her screen makes her smile.

 

“Hello?” She says, carefully and maybe even a little hopefully.

“What,” He says, “you don’t know how to text a person? Just call me.”

She laughs a bit, because he sounds like always and this is how she wanted it. This sarcasm and these smiles. She swears he’s grinning right now, and she can’t even see him, but the thought makes her smile too.

“Sorry.”

“Wow, you suck at calling too.” He teases a bit, but they both know he doesn’t mean it.

“Like you’re any better.”

He sighs like she’s a little kid who makes no sense, “So,” he says a bit softer, “Why did you text me?”

She’s thinking of a reply to that, something like ‘I’m not really sure but I was just bored and you’re the only one I can call and it’s not like you were the first person I thought of it’s just that I know you never sleep and – where was I going with this?’.

 

But instead, she hears herself say, “I just felt like talking to you.” There’s a sharp intake of breath on the other end, and they just remain frozen like that. She knows that he’s thinking something else, she knows that he’s surprised, she knows. And suddenly, it's like his feelings are hanging in that silence between them.

“You could just come back, you know.” He says, and his voice is soft and she feels like it could break at any moment, he could break and shatter into pieces and he’s never been this vulnerable before.

She sneezes, and suddenly they’re back to reality. Back to the reality where she’s in Tongyeong and he’s in Seoul and they’re just friends.

“Go inside, don’t catch a cold.” He says gently and she smiles.

She doesn’t know why, but she find herself telling him, “Let’s talk tomorrow.”

“I’ll talk to you every day if you just go inside.”

“Really? Promise?” And they both can hear the hopefulness in her voice.

“Yeah.”

He hangs up after a while and she goes inside. It’s still cold, but she feels warm.

As she buries her face in her pillow, the words ‘every day’ echo in her head.

 


 

(It’s not like she’s expecting him to really call her.

But he does.

And she’s grateful.)


 

fin.

Chapter Text

ii.

 

Some days he likes to sit outside and feel the cold night breeze on his skin. Some nights she shows up too, and even though it’s not even that late at night he still feels that rush of excitement. Like he’s special to her.

Some nights she doesn’t show up but still texts him. Some nights she doesn’t even do that. It’s on those nights that he sighs and goes inside, staring at his medals from his bed, thinking about her in the way that he’s accustomed to.

There’s the first medal he ever won, the one she rejected. There’s the one he won a year later, and she hugged him as a reward. There’s the one he got in middle school, on the day she was absent because of a fever. He showed up at her house sweaty and tired and to this day he remembers her smile.

She’s a part of every memory he has from childhood, the figure that was a part of every high and low of his life so far. She was the constant that was there even when she wasn’t. Her name crept into every conversation he had, her smile kept flashing in his head as he swam, her laughter still bright and fresh in his ears.

Which probably makes losing her even harder. It’s hard to spend every day expecting to turn around and see her smile, hear that teasing voice – and instead be greeted by a stranger with the same face.

It’s worse than any God damn thing he can imagine.

 

Hey. Gong Tae Kwang’s being annoying, want to meet up?

This isn’t like her. Lee Eun Bi never refers to Gong Tae Kwang this way, never speaks to him so casually. She’s gentle and mild-tempered and just normal. She’s the still water in a pond where her sister is a raging waterfall.

It’s weird, because she sounds so different.

He shows up at the bridge, then stops. He hears himself calling her name as a child, his tiny legs trying to catch up to the light-footed girl. He takes a step forward. Steps back. This is Lee Eun Bi, he reminds himself, not Go Eun Byul.

He walks up to her and she’s got her back facing towards him. He’s struck by the way she’s standing, in a relaxed way that’s familiar and different all at the same time. Lee Eun Bi stands with perfect posture and with politeness radiating from her. She’s polite in the sad way that distances her from others, kind in the way that makes you wonder what hell she’s been through, and gentle in the way that you want to protect her.

She turns around and his heart skips and he thinks, this is like her. Like Go Eun Byul.

 

“Han Yi An.” He forgets to mention that she’s being oddly casual, “How have you been?”

She’s acting like she hasn’t been showing up every day. Like she hasn’t visited him at the hospital over and over. There’s a lightness in his heart and he dares to hope. That this could be her. But she’s dead and gone and only lives in his memories.

“Sorry for making you worry.” She gives a small smile and stretches her arms wide, “What, no hug?”

The words come out like she’s broken some spell in him, the taboo he placed on himself. And it’s not like the dozens of times he’s called her in school. This isn’t a façade.

 

“Go Eun Byul.”

 

She smiles and he’s struck by the way she tilts her head slightly, the way her eyes glint mischievously.

“Hi.”

God, he thinks, this had better not be a dream. He steps forward and it’s like he’s sprinting to the goal, trying to catch her before she disappears. This ghost or whatever the hell it is. But it’s Go Eun Byul, he knows that much.

 

He holds her tight, his Go Eun Byul. She fits in his arms the way he’s dreamed of. Her breath tickles his skin, and he thinks, it’s her. It’s her.

 

 

The rest is like a daydream. He knows that he got angry, scared, terrified and said words he shouldn’t have but doesn’t regret. He knows she said something in return. He knows, but doesn’t believe.

Right. It’s a hallucination. He’s been thinking about her so much, missing her so much. He’s aching for a bottle of soju but decides against it. Once a coward, always a coward.

He plays with his phone, wanting to call Lee Eun Bi and ask if that was her. Then he remembers that they’re avoiding each other and stops himself. He’s been forgetting a lot of things. But he’ll be damned the day he forgets the feeling of her in his arms, warm and fragile and just – just alive.

 

His phone beeps once, then twice. He opens the first message, it’s Lee Eun Bi asking if he’s coming to school, if he’s starting rehab, if he’s okay. He wants to be angry at her but all that remains it a dull pang in his chest. He’d like to say it surprises him but honestly, it doesn’t. He could never hate her, or maybe he’s just learning to move on. Maybe that’s a part of growing up.

It doesn’t matter, because he reads the second message from a different number.

 

I missed you.

 

He thinks about the way she talks casually; the way he has to read between the lines, over them, and whatever way there is to read. He’s supposed to throw his phone like they do in dramas; he’s supposed to feel betrayed.

Instead, he smiles to himself because it’s just so much like her. He’s missed her, he admits, he’s missed these vague messages and the hidden meanings. He’s missed this game of tag where they chase each other, only, he’s been chasing her for ten years. He’s missed her smile, her laugh, the way she tries to act cool and the way her eyes betray more than she’d like.

 

She’s not the constant in his life – she’s not some words on paper. Go Eun Byul is a living contradiction, she’s the warmth of an embrace and the chill of a fight. He’s run out of words, run out of feelings, run out of everything to describe her and yet it fits her so well. She’s so perfect at being imperfect.

He’d always imagined that he’ll never be able to live without her. It was true. He might have been there, his heart might have been pumping blood, but never had he felt so cold. It’s pathetic how she’s his lifeline, his everything.

 

 

He wants to tell her all of this and more. He wants to run up to her and tell her all those words left unspoken between them.

But he just replies, I missed you too.

It’s her turn to read between the lines now. It’s her turn to play tag.


 

 

(Maybe that’s growing up, too.)

 


 

Fin.